Decoding Karnataka’s plan to track hate speech, fake news – Hindustan Times

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The Karnataka government has begun working on a unit that will scrutinise complaints and monitor the internet for misinformation and hate speech, according to tender documents and remarks by state’s information technology minister Priyank Kharge. He said a rough budget of at least 10 crore will be allotted, and shared new details of how the unit will function.
The plan to create such a unit — named the Information Disorder Tackling Unit — was first announced in June, weeks after a new government headed by the Congress party took over. On Tuesday, the state released a call for proposal (CFP) with broad outlines about the project as it sought applications to constitute teams with three distinct mandates – fact checking, analytics and capacity building.
The proposal has drawn concerns that the project could jeopardise freedom of speech online. It comes against the backdrop of the Union government’s attempts to create its own fact-check unit, which has been kept in limbo after being challenged by comedian Kunal Kamra and slew of media bodies in the Bombay high court.
Kharge said the Karnataka plan was different. “What they [the Centre] have tried to do is amend the IT Act (Information Technology Act, 2000) and try to force in their narrative … We are not amending a single act. We are not getting in any new rules. We are merely using technology to determine what is [legal] as per the current IPC sections or current law of the land. It is as simple as that,” said Kharge, who also holds the biotechnology portfolio.
The CFP does not specify a budget. “Once the empanelment is done, we will figure out what kind of physical and digital infrastructure is required and then we will do it. Right now, the in-principle agreement is over 10 crores,” Kharge said.
The minister said the IDTU will be physically housed within the offices of the state government. When asked about the timeline for the unit to be up and running, Kharge said “yesterday” in a lighter vein, but added that all necessary protocols first need to be followed. “We have to follow all the rules,” he said.
“I don’t want anybody to say that these rules are not being followed by the IT department or that these rules are being flouted by the Home department. That is why we are giving the expression of interest; we are calling people and we are talking to them. Everything has been done in a very transparent manner so that the courts don’t give a stay nor does the central government have any holes to pick,” Kharge added.
Fact-check: Concerns over process
For fact checking, the team can either receive content from the public or look at content that they or the analytics team find by “proactive hunting”. In the latter case, a single point of contact (review SPOC), appointed by the state government, must first approve initiating a fact check.
If the information to perform a fact check is not available in public domain, they will ask nodal officers of state departments for it. Once they complete their analysis, there will be an internal review within the fact check agency.
This internal review will again be looked at by the review SPOC, who will authorise the fact check to be made public.
Thus, the fact check team’s work will undergo two approvals by the state-appointed review SPOC, a process that imperils the editorial independence.
“No newsroom can be editorially independent if they have a government nominee gatekeeping which claims to address or not. That goes against the spirit of editorial independence followed by good newsrooms across the world. Under the IDTU workflow, the claims have to be approved by a state government official which is not in line with the principles followed by a fact-checking newsroom,” Jency Jacob, the managing editor of BOOM Fact Check, an IFCN signatory, told HT.
Kharge said any rejections by the review SPOC will be made public.
According to the CFP, before the fact check is made public, the review SPOC will also determine if the content violates a social media platform’s policies, is illegal, or needs to be blocked. They will subsequently either inform the social media company, or lodge a complaint (with the police), or refer the matter to the central government to recommend blocking under Section 69A of the Information technology Act, respectively.
Will content that is referred to the social media company, the police or the central government also be publicly fact checked? Kharge said “yes”.
Online content is regulated by the central government. If the central government refuses to block content under Section 69A despite the state’s recommendation, Kharge said the state will “put it in public saying that we have put it up to the central government to get this content down and it is malafide and it is fake. That itself is good enough. When a government makes it clear that a piece of news is fake, it goes a long way to ensure that fewer people spread it,” Kharge said.
According to central government’s rules under the IT Act, referrals for blocking and blocking orders are bound by a confidentiality clause – a fact that could put the Karnataka government’s plans to disclose details at conflict with federal law.
“It is already in public. We are combatting misinformation that is in the public domain. Only the complainant’s identity will be kept confidential,” Kharge said, denying there could be problems.
Every fact check will also need to reveal methodology and sources, according to the state government’s plan.
The Karnataka government will also set up an oversight committee to oversee the operations of IDTU. This committee will include the head of the IT department, the additional director general of police (Intelligence), representatives from the department of Information and Public Relations, the additional advocate general, the centre head of Cyber Security Unit, and representatives from civil society,” he had said in September. “I have also invited the Press Guild or anybody else from the press to be a part of the Oversight Committee,” he told HT now.
Selecting fact checkers
The fact check team will consist of independent fact check agencies whose fact checks must be “unbiased and evidence based”. Its remit will be restricted to the jurisdiction of Karnataka.
How will that be determined? Consider the Karnataka-Maharashtra border dispute or the Krishna River water dispute. “If somebody is saying that the Supreme Court passed a ruling in Maharashtra’s favour which is causing chaos in Karnataka, it is my responsibility to put up [a fact check] saying that there is no such order, citing the facts,” Kharge said.
And the remit could also include “issues of national importance, citizenship or public interest”. What would that look like? Kharge reiterated the novel nature of this unit and said, “We intend to cross the bridge when we get to it. We don’t have readymade answers for everything.”
Based on inputs from the fact check team, officers from the state government could order media agencies to take down fake content “wherever necessary or deemed fit”.
According to the CFP, applicants will have to demonstrate “no political/ideological affiliation that could impact the work and the reputation of the ITDU”. It is not clear how the government will make such as assessment.
The empanelled agency will also need to be able to work in all the key languages of Karnataka, including Kannada, English, Hindi, Urdu, Tulu, Konkani, Telugu, Tamil and Marathi.
Only Indian fact-checking entities that have been in existence for at least three years as of August 31 can apply. Such entities must also not have a record of criminal proceedings of any serious crimes or violation of code of conduct against the entity or its directors.
While evaluating the agency, the government will look at their qualifications, experience, effectiveness of proposed tools and methodologies, their non-partisanship and fairness in conduct of work, previous work and references.
Applications from IFCN signatories seem difficult
Amongst the requirements, the CFP states that being a signatory to the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) will be an added advantage. It is not clear how an IFCN signatory could apply for this because according to the IFCN code of principles, signatory status cannot be granted to an organisation “whose editorial work is controlled by the state, a political party or a politician”.
“IFCN’s code of principles require fact-checkers to be non-partisan and fair. Any government-run fact-checking unit will fail to meet that criteria. Fact checking newsrooms are effective and trustworthy when they are able to display non-partisanship and fact check all claims across the political spectrum,” Jacob said.
But Kharge claims that multiple fact checkers have expressed interest in being empanelled.
While applying, the companies must also give details of their funding especially any foreign funding, along with details of criminal proceedings against their current and past directors.
But will having an IFCN grant be an added advantage? “We have tried to put in as many checks and balances as possible. Because this is a new domain [where] forget the government, even the private sector does not have enough experience,” Kharge said.
Despite the novelty of the step, agencies that have provided Indian government departments with similar services in the past will also have an added advantage. How can fact checkers have such experience if such a unit is unprecedented?
“A lot of agencies have taken this up. There are many technology companies that use AI and machine learning to tackle misinformation. They work closely with the governments of India, Karnataka and Maharashtra,” Kharge said. Despite being asked, he didn’t name any companies.
Jacob, on the other hand, could not think of any fact-checking publications in India that have worked with the government.
For analytics team, proactive monitoring key task
The analytics team will use data analytics and AI to “proactively monitor” content online to “detect false information” and identify “key nodes”, networks and actors that propagate false information “harmful to the interest of the society and public order”.
Any kind of proactive monitoring that pre-empts actions before they happen runs the risk of enabling surveillance and censorship. Kharge, in his conversation with HT, dismissed such concerns and stressed on the need for tackling misinformation, disinformation and malinformation.
This analytics team will also need to detect hate speech; identify fake, bot and impersonation accounts; and map the spread of disinformation, find “the node of origin of a piece of false information” and the nodes that “resulted in maximum propagation”.
They will need to provide a platform that will work as a one stop shop where all content from the different social media platforms and other websites will be searchable — a search engine but only for all social media and communication platforms. This platform must also allow for the categorisation of propagation of content by authentic accounts, bots, etc.
Capacity building team’s core mandate
The capacity building team will conduct awareness campaigns. It will build a platform for citizens to send in information or messages that they need fact checked, and contain a repository of fact-checked information. This platform, which should support all major and local languages, must include a web portal and accounts on all key social media and digital communication platforms.


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